Buddhist Ghosts. . .

Halloween is just around the corner and here is something you may not know: Buddhism is full of ghosts. Not just the hungry kind. Demons, spirits, and other supramundane creatures abound in the Buddhist literature, and they continue to play a role in the lives of many Buddhist practitioners today. To some, all those ghoulish items are just psychological tropes, mere projections of an unenlightened mind. But like any good teacher, the things that go bump in the night have a way of upending our notions about what we hold to be real and unreal. Lets take a look at the hungry ghost concept.

Hungry ghost is a concept in Buddhism representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. The terms “hungry ghost“, are the translation of the term preta in Buddhism. “Hungry ghosts” play a role in Chinese Buddhism, Vietnamese Buddhism and Taoism as well as in Chinese folk religion and Vietnamese folk religion. The term is not to be confused with the generic term for “ghost” or damnation, guǐ (i.e. the residual spirit of a deceased ancestor). The understanding is that all people become such a regular ghost when they die, and would then slowly weaken and eventually die a second time. Hungry ghosts, by contrast, are a much more exceptional case, and would only occur in very unfortunate circumstances, such as if a whole family were killed or when a family no longer venerated their ancestors. According to the tradition, evil deeds that lead to becoming a hungry ghost are killing, stealing and misconduct. Desire, greed, anger and ignorance are all factors in causing a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost because they are motives for people to perform evil deeds. It is likely that the idea of hungry ghosts originated from ancient Indian culture, where they were referred to as Preta. However, there are many legends regarding the origin of hungry ghosts. In the Buddhist tradition there are stories from Chuan-chi po-yuan ching (“Sutra of One Hundred Selected Legends”) that is from the early third century.

Some examples of these stories are as follows: One story is of a rich man who traveled selling sugar-cane juice. One day a monk came to his house looking for some juice to cure an illness. The man had to leave, so he instructed his wife to give the monk the drink in his absence. Instead of doing this, she secretly urinated in the monk’s bowl, added sugar cane juice to it and gave it to the monk. The monk was not deceived, he poured out the bowl and left. When the wife died she was reborn as a hungry ghost. Another such tale is of a man who was giving and kind. One day he was about to leave his house when a monk came by begging. The man instructed his wife to give the monk some food. After the man left his house his wife was overcome with greed. She took it upon herself to teach the monk a lesson, so she locked the monk in an empty room all day with no food. She was reborn as a hungry ghost for innumerable lifetimes. Most times the legends speak of hungry ghosts who in a previous lifetime were greedy persons who refused to give away food. Other stories in the Buddhist tradition come from Kuei wen mu-lien ching (“The Sutra on the Ghosts Questioning Mu-lien”). One of the stories tells of a man who was a diviner who constantly misled people due to his own avarice and is now a hungry ghost. There is another story in “The Legend of Mu-lien Entering the City and Seeing Five Hundred Hungry Ghosts”. The story is about five hundred men that were sons of elders of the city they lived in. When monks came begging to the city for food, the sons denied them because they thought the monks would keep coming back and eventually take all their food. After the sons died they were reborn as hungry ghosts. According to the Nyāyānusāriṇī, there are three main groups of hungry ghosts, each of which are divided into three sub-groups.

Ghosts of no wealth:

  • Torch or flaming mouths: These ghosts regurgitate fierce flames with mouths of inextinguishable embers. Their bodies are like that of a palmyra tree. This is the karmic result of stinginess.
  • Needle mouths: These ghosts have bellies as vast as mountain valleys. Their mouth are like the hole of a needle. Even if they find food or drink, they cannot consume it. Thus they suffer from hunger and thirst.
  • Putrid mouths: These ghosts give off a great decomposing odor from their mouths. They may be found at privies overflowing with filth and fecal matter. They constantly emit a nauseating, evil fumes. Although they find food, they cannot eat it. This fills them with anger and they run about shrieking.

Ghosts of little wealth:

  • Needle hair: These ghosts have bodies made of hair, firm like spears. They are unapproachable. Their insides burn, as a deer shot with a poison arrow. They run about suffering from ulcers. Only small quantities of impure food can allay their hunger.
  • Putrid hair: These ghosts also have bodies made of hair that smells incredibly foul. Their flesh and bones emit noxious fumes and their bowels are full of grime. They are agitated from poison in their throats and their skin splits when their hair is pulled out. Only small quantities of impure food can allay their hunger.
  • Swollen: Large protuberances grow in their throats. They suffer from aches and fever. They smell of pus that gushes forth from their bodies. They fight with each other over food. They consume small bits of pus and blood and can be somewhat satiated.

Ghosts of much wealth: 

  • Ghosts of sacrifices: These ghosts live off sacrifices offered by humans. One is reborn here by ethically gathering wealth, but with a stingy heart does not practice generosity. If one is reborn here, their descendants can make offerings to satiate their hunger.
  • Ghosts of losses: These ghosts are always covetous, searching out filth like vomit and feces to eat. In life, they sought out and found enjoyment in both clean and unclean things, and were thus reborn here.
  • Ghosts of great power: includes certain yakshas, rakshasas, kumbhandas and the like who are the powerful rulers of the spirits. They reside in forests, stupas, mountain valleys, and empty palaces. Those with no authoritative power live on all four continents except for Uttarakuru. Those with authoritative power may also be found in the heavens and on two of the five-hundred islands that lie to the west of Jambudvipa. One island holds their castle while the other holds the castle of those ghosts with no authority.

Sixteen hungry ghosts are said to live in hell or in a region of hell. Unlike other hell dwellers, they can leave hell and wander. They look through garbage and human waste on the outskirts of human cities. They are said to be invisible during the daylight hours but visible at night. Some hungry ghosts can only eat corpses, or their food is burnt up in their mouths, sometimes they have a big belly and a neck as thin as a needle (this image is the basic one for hungry ghosts in Asian Buddhism). According to the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna Sūtra, there are thirty-six different types of hungry ghosts. Traditionally, the asian cultures believed that it was possible to contact the spirits of deceased relatives and ancestors through a medium. It was believed that the spirits of the deceased can help them if they were properly respected and rewarded. The annual Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in China (including Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions), Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora, is dedicated to performing rituals to honor and remember the spirits of the dead. On this day ghosts and other supernatural creatures come out from the Underworld and move among the living. Families prepare food and other offerings and place them on a shrine dedicated to deceased relatives. Incense and paper money are burned and other rituals are performed in hopes that the spirits of the dead will protect and bring good luck to the family.

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